Democrats fear broadcaster Hepola could be spoiler for Walz

Published 5:24 am Thursday, March 3, 2022

ST. PAUL — The entry of former broadcaster Cory Hepola into the Minnesota governor’s race as a centrist third-party candidate adds a new challenge to Gov. Tim Walz’s reelection bid, and Democrats are already calling him a spoiler.

Hepola, who has been a morning host on WCCO Radio and a morning anchor on KARE-TV, announced Tuesday that he’ll seek the backing of the Forward Party of Minnesota, which was launched this month by former Democratic presidential and New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang.

“This is a calling. We hear you, Minnesota,” Hepola said Wednesday. “You’re tired, you’re frustrated, you’re exhausted with this broken, toxic two-party system that is pushing forward negative, hateful not only speech but inactivity. There’s no collaboration, there’s no compromise. We deserve better, Minnesota.”

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Hepola said he’s running on a platform of better education, better public health and better economic opportunities, though he provided no detailed policy proposals at his news conference. He said he voted for Walz in 2018 and for Joe Biden in 2020, considers himself an abortion rights supporter and that he supports strong environmental protections.

Hepola said Walz did “an excellent job” of handling the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic but faulted him for relying too long on emergency powers, a common Republican complaint.

Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin was quick to criticize Hepola’s candidacy, fearing it could siphon votes away from the liberal Walz and help elect a conservative Republican.

“Minnesota doesn’t need another celebrity vanity candidate that could hand the Governor’s office to an anti-choice, anti-LGBT Republican. The current field of Republican candidates for governor is the most extreme that Minnesota has seen in decades, making Hepola’s spoiler campaign even more irresponsible,” Martin said a statement. “A vote for Cory Hepola is a vote to help the GOP cut taxes for the rich, defund public schools, and force their anti-choice agenda on Minnesotans.”

Hepola objected to the “spoiler” label, saying “the moment has never been better” for a disruptive third-party candidate who can provide an alternative to “the two major toxic parties” for independent voters.

He said he loves Yang and has spoken with him several times: “He has seen the moment and he has sparked a movement. He stands for grace, and tolerance and bold, innovative ideas.”

Martin’s statement pointed out that three out of the last four Minnesota gubernatorial elections were decided by single-digit margins, and two were decided by 1 percentage point or less. Walz won by a comfortable 11 points in 2018, but 2022 is shaping up to be a challenging year for Democrats.

The Walz campaign did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment. But the Democratic Governors Association echoed Martin’s attack, saying Walz has a record of “sound economic policy and fiscally responsible leadership” that led to Monday’s announcement that the state’s budget surplus has grown to $9.25 billion.

Hepola called the surplus “embarrassing” and said it shows the need for tax reform, though he wasn’t ready to talk about details.

Minnesota voters have a history of receptivity to independent candidates. Former wrestler Jesse Ventura beat Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Skip Humphrey in a historic 1998 upset. Tim Penny, a conservative Democratic former congressman, drew 16% of the vote when he ran as the Independence Party candidate for governor in 2002.

Tom Horner, who ran as the Independence Party candidate for governor in 2010, when Democrat Mark Dayton eked out a win by just 0.4 percentage points over Republican Tom Emmer, said he hasn’t endorsed Hepola but has been giving him advice.

“It’s challenging to run as a third-party candidate,” Horner said. “I think in some ways it’s become a little bit easier. I think having the Forward Party with Andrew Yang gives him a unique access to young voters, which will be key for a candidate like Cory. That’s a big help. But he’s also running against an incumbent, and I didn’t have to do that. That’s a huge challenge.”